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Racism and Mass Shootings in the United States


Mass shootings do not occur frequently and account for less than 15% of all mass killings and 0.5% of homicides in the United States (Smart and Schell 3). The United States government has never categorized mass shooting as a distinct crime category. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) once defined a mass murderer as a person who kills four or more individuals in one incident. However, despite them being rare, they receive the most extensive coverage by the mass media and adversely affect the public’s mental health. However, the ethnicity of the mass shooter determines how the media covers and reports the event. For example, the shooting by Omar Mateen at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016 killed and injured 49 and 53 individuals respecively. The media seemed to lean on Omar’s ethnicity in their reporting, citing his close ties to the Islamic State (Wheeler 72). Their reporting made the incident appear like a terrorist attack on the country.


Mass shootings are several homicide incidences involving firearms and affecting more than 4 victims located at the same place or areas close to each other (Booty 3). However, mass shootings from foreign terrorists are not in this category regardless of their numbers. Exclusions also occur when describing mass shooting, For instance, if 10 people get shot but only 1 or 2 die, then it does not qualify to be a mass shooting. Homicides that do not involve firearms are also no put in this category. Therefore, the variations in mass shooting definitions make it challenging to reach an agreement regarding the number of affected persons or the common incident types.

Research Question: 

Does the race of a mass shooter affect how the media covers the mass shooting incident?

The first hypothesis is that race of the mass shooter affects how the media covers mass shooting because of the observed difference in the way the media portrays a white mass shooter and a mass shooter from ethnic minority group. The second hypothesis is that race of the mass shooter does not influence how the media covers the mass shooting because mass shooting is a heinous act that leave innocent people dead and there is no excuse for such acts.

This study will assess the hypothesis that the race of the mass shooting perpetrator affects how the media covers the mass shooting.

The case of race affecting the reporting of mass shootings is also evident in the case of Josh Boren, a white 34-year old male, and Conley, an African American 48-year-old male. Josh Boren, a former police officer, killed his wife and three children and later killed himself on January 24, 2014. On August 8, 2015, David Conley killed his son, six children and adults, and former girlfriend (Frizzell et al. 3). However, the media portrayed the incidents differently despite the two men having histories of criminal behavior and domestic violence. They portrayed Boren as an individual who was an excellent parent and had had good character, who only killed his family as a result of stress. On the other hand, the media portrayed Conley as a dangerous person who had a prior history of domestic violence and drug possession charges. These cases are not unique because in most cases, while the mass shooter is white, the media portrays them as a person struggling with mental health issues, but when the mass shooter is from the racial and ethnic minorities, the media portrays them as a criminal with the motive to commit the crime (Wheeler 73). The mass media influences public opinions and perspectives, and such portrays lead to racial stereotypes. Therefore, mass media should be careful on how they represent mass shootings and any other issue because it significantly affects the public’s opinion and perspectives of other individuals. This paper will conduct a study to identify whether the shooter’s race affects how mass media portrays the mass shooting.


The effect of racism in mass shooting reporting is an important area to cover because the media significantly influences public opinion and the perspective of others. Racism is an issue of concern in the United States, and alleviating the problem needs an all-round change in the mentality of all individuals. This paper analyzed previous research to assess the hypothesis. The research mainly concentrated on the findings of four studies. The first article was The Racial Project in Explaining Mass Shootings by William Mingus and Bradley Zopf. The second article was Mass Shooting by Emily Wheeler. The third article was Narrative of Harm by Caleb Peart. The last article was Misrepresentation of Lone Shooters by Cynthia Frisby. The paper analyzed the finding of the four studies to arrive at the conclusion of the hypothesis. The paper chose the above articles because they are peer-reviewed, meaning that experts wrote the articles and other experts in the field reviewed the articles. Due to that fact, the articles contain reliable content to use in the study.

Literature Review

Mass shooting has no standardized definition. Some researchers define a mass shooter as an individual who kills more than four people in a single incident. In contrast, others use the definition that a mass shooter is a person who kills people randomly. School shootings are the most common mass shootings in the United States. However, school mass shooting is not a new phenomenon because they started way back. One of the oldest instances was in 1966 when Charles Whitman, a University of Texas student, shot students at the schools from a clock tower, killing thirteen and injuring thirty-three (Mingus and Zopf 59). These incidents leave fear and tension amongst people, which the mass media makes worse during its covering by enhancing racial stereotypes.

The mass media portrays mass shooters differently depending on their race, which affects the public opinion of individuals from those ethnic groups. A study conducted on 433 online and print new articles by Frizzell et al. (4) that covered 219 mass shootings from 2013 to 2015 indicated that 33% of the article portrayed a white shooter as mentally ill while only 2% indicated that the black shooter was mentally ill. The reports described the mentally ill white shooter as a good person who fell victim to society. However, this sort of sympathy does not apply to racial minorities because the media portrays them as criminals. According to Frisby (170), African Americans have a two and a half times higher likelihood of being criminal suspects than whites. Also, Hispanics have a five and a half times more probability of being criminal suspects. Sometimes, the public blames victims from minority ethnic communities for their shootings. For example, the public considered Trayvon Martin’s hoodie as responsible as his shooter. However, some researchers indicate that whites are the majority of mass shooters despite the media’s over-representation of African Americans in mass shootings. A study conducted on mass shootings between 1982 showed that white shooters conducted 48 of the 83 mass shootings (Frisby 168). However, some studies reject that claim by indicating that African Americans account for a significant number of mass shooters like all other categories of murders.

Previous researchers have indicated that mass media significantly influences the public perception of a crime and enhances racial stereotypes. Many researchers have questioned the reliability of the media in providing crime information, with some identifying it as a significant source of mass shootings data in the United States. According to Wheeler (76), a research comparing mass media information on mass shootings with Uniform Crime Report (UCR) Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR) and the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data sources indicated that the media represented mass murders differently from what is in the official data. The investigators concluded that although mass media provides essential coverage on mass shootings, they mainly offer a distorted view of the crime. The distortion of crime view mainly occurs when a mass shooting involves an African American offender or victim. One of the tactics that the media uses is mug shots for mass shooters from ethnic minorities for racial and political agendas and pictures of well-dressed white shooters. Others also post these mass shooters in chains to symbolize how dangerous they are and raise the topic of gun violence in their discussion. According to Wheeler (76), some studies have investigated how media portrayal of race and ethnicity can negatively impact people from ethnic minorities individually and as a group and enhance the public’s acceptance of racial stereotypes. One of the studies blames the internet because it enables people to enhance racial stereotypes and suggests implementing literacy programs to increase awareness of the problem.


The study’s findings agreed with the argument that the race of the mass shooter influenced how the mass media reported the mass shooting. Mingus and Zopf conducted a study on four shootings that occurred at Northern Illinois University and Columbine High School. They also researched the ones which occured at Virginia Tech, and Fort Hood. White shooters committed two mass shootings while non-whites committed the rest of the two (Mingus and Zopf 60). The researchers conducted the study to determine whether there was some racial project in the public’s and mass media’s reaction. The research revealed that in the shootings in Columbine High School and Northern Illinois committed by a white shooter, the race was a silent issue but became a central issue in the shooting of Virginia Tech and Fort Hood committed by an African American shooter, which revealed the existence of a racial project. Wheeler also agreed with the hypothesis after conducting a study comparing between mass shooting at Columbine High school committer by a white shooter and the shooting at Virginia Tech committed by a Korean-American shooter (Wheeler 80). The investigation indicated that the media rationalized the white shooter’s actions by suggesting that he had a mental illness. However, the rationalization does not occur to the Korean-American actor. The researcher insists that further investigation is necessary across a larger demographic area to establish the hypothesis. The author also notes that fixing the problem of the media coverage of mass shootings the portrayal of the shooter is not easy. Regulation is not feasible because a lot of information is available on the internet and social media platforms. Wheeler (81) insists that the mass media needs to be objective in their reporting and provide accurate reports to prevent the formation of racial stereotypes among the public.

The findings of Peart’s studies support the argument that the race of the mass shooter affects how the mass media covers the story. The researcher analyzed 25 news articles and journals in the United States from 2015 to 2019 that contained mass shooting stories. The author selected the samples randomly. The study findings indicated that the articles suggested that the white shooters were mentally ill. Despite the heinous acts that they had committed, the articles portrayed their humanity and their good characters. However, that was not the case for the shooters that were not white. The media portrayed them as dangerous criminals who had calculated the crime. The crime of the shooter from ethnic minorities also reflected on the entire ethnicity, unlike white shooter’s act which reflected them as an individual and not their entire ethnicity. Finally, Frisby’s also found that the media often refers to white shooters as mentally ill, which does not happen to individuals from ethnic minorities (Frisby 179). The researcher conducted mass shootings on national print media, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. These sources show overwhelming evidence that, indeed, the media favor white shooters in mass shootings by labeling them as mentally ill or victims of society while labeling shooters from other ethnicities as dangerous, which supports the study’s hypothesis.


Although mass shootings do not happen regularly like other crimes, they cause the most severe effects on the public’s physical and mental health. When mass shootings happen, the mass media is the channel by which most people receive the news. However, evidence has shown that the media’s coverage of mass shootings is not accurate, and their way of coverage depends on the shooter’s race. The media tends to rationalize the actions of white shooters by labeling them as mentally ill or victims of society. However, the media portrays shooters from ethnic minorities as dangerous perpetrators and their actions as calculated. Media coverage from various reporters shows that the race shooters’ race greatly determines the story’s coverage. Unlike the whites who are portrayed as stressed individuals who shoot others due to mental illnesses, the whites are branded criminals who intentionally commit the crimes. The media has a powerful influence on people’s perception of others, and that is why they should remain objective in their coverage of mass shootings and other incidents.

Work Cited

Booty, Marisa, et al. “Describing a “mass shooting”: the role of databases in understanding burden.” Injury epidemiology 6.1 (2019): 1-8.

Frisby, Cynthia M. “Misrepresentations of lone shooters: The disparate treatment of Muslim, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and white perpetrators in the US news media.” Advances in Journalism and Communication 5.02 (2017): 162.

Frizzell, Laura, Lindsay, Sade l., and Duxbury, Scott. “Race of Mass Shooter influence how the Media covers their Crimes, New Study Shows.” Ohio State News. 2018.

Mingus, William, and Bradley Zopf. “White means never having to say you’re sorry the racial project in explaining mass shootings.” Social Thought & Research (2010): 57-77.

Peart, Caleb J. Narratives of Harm: How Reports of Mass Shootings Privilege White Identities and Perpetuate Black Pathology”. Diss. Vanderbilt University, 2020.

Wheeler, Emily. “Mass Shootings and the Media: How Race and Ethnicity Influence Media Coverage.” Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science 5.1 (2017): 5.


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